New Yorker Blogger: Nixon Pioneered Politics of ‘Perpetual Grievance’ That Now Fuels the GOP

A great many movement conservatives weren’t fans of Richard Nixon’s presidency, to the point that some of them, including William F. Buckley Jr., William Rusher, and M. Stanton Evans, backed a 1972 primary challenge to Nixon by Rep. John Ashbrook of Ohio.

But has Nixon, despite his ideological squishiness, greatly influenced today’s Republican party? New Yorker blogger Jeff Shesol says he has. In a Wednesday post, Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, essentially asserted that modern conservatism consists of Ronald Reagan’s principles but Nixon’s attitude, specifically his “sour brand of politics: the politics of resentment.” Parading one’s resentments, Shesol remarked, “has become a kind of reflex on the right, to the point of self-parody.” From Shesol’s post (emphasis added):


Twenty-first-century Republicans (with a touch of self-regard) trace their genealogy to Ronald Reagan, but, if you squint at just about any of them—from “establishment” figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to Tea Party irregulars like Senator Ted Cruz—you will see a strong familial resemblance to Nixon. Nixon’s internationalism is of no interest to them now; his domestic achievements are overlooked (Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I.) or disowned (the E.P.A.), but today’s Republicans were weaned on Nixon’s sour brand of politics: the politics of resentment. Which makes his influence on the party every bit as profound, in its way, as Reagan’s.

During the 1968 campaign, Kevin Phillips, then a young Nixon aide, said to Garry Wills that “the whole secret of politics” was “knowing who hates who”…Politics has always been an exercise in mutual antagonism. But what was startling about Phillips’s comment was its note of satisfaction, even celebration: 1968 was a banner year for bitter grievance, and Nixon rode a wave of resentment to the White House. Governor George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who ran for President that year as a third-party candidate, wore his resentment more openly than Nixon; Reagan, who posed, for a time, a credible threat to Nixon in the primaries, displayed his more deftly; but it was Nixon who turned it into a winning strategy at the national level.

What Nixon knew in his gut, reinforced by the latest tools of gauging public opinion, was that the white middle class—the “silent majority,” in Nixon’s famous phrase, the “good people” who “paid their taxes and go to church”—had come to feel humiliated by college students, civil-rights activists, anti-war protestors, intellectuals, journalists, and other liberal élites who were said to spurn and mock the traditional values of family, faith, and love of country...Nixon, along with his Vice-Presidential candidate and insult comic, Spiro Agnew, stoked these resentments…

Government itself became a target, just as it had been during the Goldwater campaign of 1964, but Republicans hit the mark this time. Nixon’s tone was one of sorrow, in contrast to Goldwater’s anger, as he recounted the failures of liberalism (which were more manifest by 1968)…

…The resentments, racial and cultural and economic, are still real, if not nearly as raw as in 1968, and invoking them has become a kind of reflex on the right, to the point of self-parody. Agnew’s “effete corps of impudent snobs” begets George Bush’s “Harvard boutique liberals” begets Rick Santorum’s attack on President Obama as a “snob” for urging all kids to go to college. “I don’t come from the élite,” Santorum said in 2012. “Élites come up with phony ideologies and phony ideas to rob you of your freedom.” More recently, Ted Cruz attacked President Obama for “doing a lot of pop culture” and acting with “condescension” toward young Americans. It is Nixon pastiche.

It is also a substitute for new ideas and ambitions. In their place, today’s G.O.P. offers only old, recycled grudges (“the press is the enemy,” as Nixon said) and new enemies: climate scientists, unaccompanied immigrant children…Every charge now, however farcical, is promulgated by an infrastructure of perpetual grievance—cable news, talk radio, blogs, and the like—that channels middle-class discontent in the right direction (toward “liberal fascists,” judges, lawyers, and “takers”) and not the wrong one (indifferent Republican legislators and their enablers). The portraits on the walls, the marble statue in the courtyard, all these say “Reagan.” But…this is the house that Nixon built.

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters